Deathloop is the latest in an increasingly rare breed of games that value focus above everything else. Arkane’s latest immersive sim adapts the freeform design philosophies of its longer and larger triple-A contemporaries into a laser-focused experience more concerned with minutiae than grand vistas.
The game’s shorter length (compared to current blockbuster trends, at least) and smaller zone-based levels belie Deathloop’s lofty ambitions. It might seem odd to compare a fifteen hour shooter to an eighty hour epic like Breath of the Wild, but the nonlinear narrative design and wealth of sandbox-style gameplay systems make that comparison surprisingly apt. The result is an engrossing and far more replayable game that, more than anything, respects my damn time.
That time was spent powering through missions dense and rich with detail, experimenting in the campaign’s early hours and developing a playstyle that I continued to refine with new abilities and upgrades throughout. The game’s satisfying progression is enabled by a structure that, while I’m hesitant to call “innovative,” comes pretty close.
The grander design of Deathloop is clearly inspired by roguelikes. Death means losing your gear and restarting the eponymous time-loop, and, even if you survive, you’ll reset at the end of the day anyway.
The game is split into four blocks of time, during which you can enter one of four districts and explore to your heart’s content. Many will be relieved to hear that there’s no real-time countdown, but as a Majora’s Mask apologist I see this as a bit of a missed opportunity.
Jeepers, that’s two Zelda comparisons and I haven’t even mentioned Dishonored.
Long term progression consists of gear infusion and information gathering. Players can spend a temporary currency to infuse their gear, allowing it to persist across subsequent loops. This system does cheapen the loop’s gameplay impact, though it felt like a necessary concession due to Deathloop’s focus on developing a long term playstyle.
Deathloop’s other progression system is a lot more satisfying. Gathering intel is far more important than building an arsenal. The actual mission structure tasks the player with visiting each district at various times of day to gather information on the game’s eight targets.
Killing every target in one cycle will end the loop, and the game’s key puzzle is figuring out how to make that happen.
Solving that puzzle will take you to every corner of Deathloop’s districts, each deceptively large and packed with secrets to uncover. Those with a “bang-for-your-buck” mentality might be shocked to see that Deathloop only has four levels, though each of these locations unfurl in surprising and satisfying ways as the player learns different key-codes and abilities.
Further still, the different times of day change the stages in distinct ways. These changes are often small, but add up to make each visit feel different. Some locations will have more enemies in the day time, while at night the rooftops may be rigged with proximity mines. You’ll confidently map each of these stages throughout your time in Deathloop, though that confidence is often subverted in fun ways.
This is the trick up Deathloop’s sleeve. Arkane, oft-regarded as experts in level design, are masters of recontextualization. The game’s story begins with very little information, and players are encouraged to comb these spaces for as much lore as they can find. Deathloop embraces its nonlinearity and happily delivers notes and dialogue without context, effectively simulating the feeling of a living world at the cost of overwhelming the player with jargon.
Persisting through the names, locations and terminology soon rewards the player with a series of satisfying brain-blasts, attaching names to faces and recontextualizing locations as they gather info. Just as the loop encourages mastery of gameplay and navigation, this tantalizing drip feed of information encourages mastery of the game’s story.
I felt distinctly overwhelmed when I first started Deathloop, but in its final hours I was bounding through environments and assassinating multiple targets in one clean sweep. It’s the ultimate time loop fantasy. I truly Groundhog Day-ed myself into an epic gamer.
That journey is further complicated by the game’s de-facto villain, Julianna. Her ongoing banter with protagonist Colt Vahn is a highlight, delivered with rapid fire dialogue that felt natural and sincerely funny. Those interactions made me wish for more dialogue from the game’s other villains, whose stories are largely restricted to notes and voice-logs.
Julianna also serves as the vehicle for Deathloop’s multiplayer, allowing cold-hearted players to invade well meaning reviewers trying to finish the game before embargo. I’m not bitter.
The invasion system brought a thrilling sense of unpredictability to the experience, and caused some of my favourite moments. Julianna invaded me as I was enacting my final plan, guarding my last target and sparking an encounter that demanded everything I had learned to that point.
That moment was more terrifying than any boss fight could’ve been, since death meant starting the day all over again.
I won’t tell you who won.
Those that don’t enjoy the looming threat of invading players can opt out, but they’ll be missing out on one of the game’s most engaging, albeit inconvenient, features.
Despite feeling very satisfied at the end of my weekend with Deathloop, there were some factors that got in the way.
First and foremost, and unfortunately the most likely to impact other players, is the game’s performance. I reviewed Deathloop on a recently upgraded PC, fit to task with an RTX 3060 and an i5-11400, and getting it to run at 1440p and 60 frames-per-second was arduous.
Some locations would suddenly cut my framerate in half, and were seemingly unaffected by any of the game’s graphical options. Deathloop is a very pretty game, but compared to others of a similar scope, something is clearly wrong. The harsher framerate dips were mercifully rare, though I experienced consistent micro-dips that made the experience feel rougher than I’d have liked.
The most disappointing side effect of this is that, in the midst of a pandemic, combined with a crypto-currency gold rush, components like the ones in my PC are expensive and rare. The same is true for consoles, of which the eternally out-of-stock PlayStation 5 is the only option. This means that a lot of people won’t be able to play Deathloop at its best, a problem that would’ve been avoided by a better-optimized PC version.
This means I’d warn people with older PCs against buying Deathloop until these issues are fixed, or to familiarize yourself with Steam’s refund policy before sinking your teeth in. The unfortunate footnote to my otherwise glowing recommendation of Deathloop is: your mileage may vary.
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Conclusion: Deathloop is a rewarding and ambitious experience that smartly combines Arkane’s immersive sim bedrock with a fluid nonlinear structure. Its smooth gameplay and naturalistic narrative stylings are interrupted by lacklustre PC performance, though it fulfils a puzzle-box Groundhog Day fantasy few other games have been ambitious enough to touch.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.